Education in Fredrick Douglass

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Nicole Blount
Voices of America
English Literature 229.1
February 28, 2011

The Irony of Education in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” The power of education in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is one of the most important themes in the entire work, but it is not a theme with a consistent meaning. Although Frederick Douglass understands that the only path to freedom, both for himself and fellow slaves, is through learning to read, write, and have an educational base to build on, he is at the same time disgusted with education because it causes him to understand the full extent of the horrors of slavery. At one point, he states, “It [education] opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but offered no ladder upon which to get out” (Douglass 47).

In his autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”, Douglass often states that the condition of slavery and education are incompatible for slaves. Throughout the text, he is constantly oscillating between an intense desire to become more educated and gaining literacy and wanting to give up hope entirely. At one point, he states, “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but offered no ladder upon which to get out” (Douglass 61). For Douglass, finally being able to read and understand more fully the implications of slavery sometimes served to make him more miserable as he came to comprehend the hopelessness of the situation for himself and other slaves. To make matters more complex, acquiring his education was a constant battle since he had to remain secretive since it was “unlawful to teach a slave to read” (Douglass 20). With the sense that the world was against his pursuit to learn, Douglass seemed to suffer because of his education and literacy as it became more advanced. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, is unique because Douglass, an escaped slave with no formal education, wrote the entire account himself. As a result, Frederick Douglass is one of the originators of the uniquely American genre, the slave narrative. Douglass' first book purchase, The Columbian Orator did more than teach him to read and write. Besides the dialogue Douglass read in The Columbian Orator, Douglass is introduced to proper, eloquent orator skills. This popular schoolbook stresses the importance of an orator's ability to communicate through eloquent speech and proper body language. The Columbian Orator gives Douglass his first contact with vocalized anti-slavery issues and influences Douglass' orator skills allowing his words to reach a much broader audience. Douglass realizes if liberation were to occur for all slaves, it is not only crucial to have the capacity to even think of the inequities of slavery and racism but also be able to form his thoughts into eloquent, understandable words. Eloquence of speech is a necessary quality for an orator to possess in order for his or her listeners to be interested in what they have to say. By reading this book, Douglass learns of the skills needed to capture and captivate an audience. He learns which words are important to stress and which words to not. Once he had achieved his goal of learning to read and write well and become literate, he saw a completely new world. This made the one he existed in even harder to bear. At times, he suffers from hopelessness and questions the value of his education, especially because he feels condemned to live within the system of slavery. After being under the cruel and watchful eye of Mr. Covey, Douglass states,  “My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died: the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute” (Douglass 48)....
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